Dominating the harbour of St. John’s is Signal Hill. On this peak in the early days of the colonial settlement signalmen watched the Atlantic for approaching ships then raised a signal flag so that the townsmen below could be informed of approaching vessels and prepare for their arrival in port. In periods of war the hill was used as a defensive installation and the remains of military buildings dating from the 18th century can still be seen there.
For visitors to St. John’s, Signal Hill has a magnetic quality. It begs to be explored either on a hike up from the harbour or via the winding road that leads up from the end of Duckworth Street. On the way you will cross a street that is called, in typical whimsical Newfoundland fashion, Hill O’Chips.
Signal hill is not only a magnet for tourists but also is a favourite haunt of locals. On a warm summer evening you will find yourself in a parade of vehicles ascending the peak as mobs of “townies” take to the heights for the fresh Atlantic air and the view of the sparkling lights of the harbour below. On these occasions parking at the top is managed by an attendant who struggles to sort out the arrivals and departures.
From the top of Signal Hill St. John’s is laid out before you. You can inspect the narrows leading from the ocean to the active harbour and look over the city dominated by The Rooms – an art gallery museum complex.
For those who want to experience even more spectacular views than those from the parking lot there are a number of well-marked hiking trails. One of the most popular of these is the North Head Trail. You descend a long staircase from the peak and walk around to North Head situated at the entrance to St. John’s harbour. Then you walk along the side of the narrows and connect with the streets of the quaint district of St. John’s called The Battery. This 1.7 km hike is fairly easy as it is all downhill however if you have parked your car at the top you will have to continue on and walk up the road you drove on your ascent. Other trails provide a variety of scenery and vary in difficulty from dead easy to strenuous.
At top of Signal Hill is Cabot Tower. It was built in 1898 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to North America. Cabot Tower, constructed in the Gothic Revival style popular in the late 19th century, was meant to recall the form of a medieval keep or castle. Used initially for flag signalling the tower gained worldwide fame as it was here, in 1901, that Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless transatlantic message from Cornwall, England. An exhibition on Marconi’s brilliant contributions to communications is located in the tower.
In the summer months the Signal Hill Tattoo is held twice a day, four days a week. Here to the thunder of guns and cannons, shouted orders and fife and drum music, soldiers in period costume of His Majesty’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Foot (1795) demonstrate the skills of proud colonial troops.
For more information check out the Signal Hill website.